Whether you’ve had COVID-19 or not, it’s reasonable to be concerned about the news that post-COVID (a.k.a. long haul COVID) can cause digestive issues. After all, if you suffer from GERD, IBS, IBD, or another gastrointestinal condition, you’re already dealing with enough stomach problems.
The bad news is that the latest research suggests that COVID-19 really can cause GI symptoms, even after you recover. The good news is that there are plenty of evidence-backed ways to treat those symptoms. But before we get to that, let’s talk about how COVID-19 impacts your digestive system.
When you think about signs of COVID-19, your mind probably goes to coughing or anosmia (the scientific term for losing your sense of smell). If so, you might be surprised to hear that studies show that more than half of people with COVID-19 experience at least one gastrointestinal symptom. In fact, the first confirmed COVID patient in the U.S. suffered two days of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Most people with COVID-19 experience respiratory symptoms with or without digestive problems, but up to 20% have exclusively GI symptoms, making it particularly tough to tell what’s going on.
COVID-19 can cause these digestive symptoms, in addition to the lack of taste that accompanies anosmia:
Unfortunately, gastrointestinal symptoms have been correlated with worse health outcomes in COVID-19 patients, including more complications and double the risk of ending up in the ICU. To make matters worse, people with certain digestive conditions, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, are more likely to both catch COVID-19 (because treatment often weakens the immune system) and experience severe GI symptoms if they do.
If you’re wondering why a disease you might’ve thought was mainly respiratory has such a big impact on your digestive system, you’re in good company: Scientists are still trying to figure that out themselves. So far, what we do know is that COVID-19’s destructive effects spread far beyond the lungs, and the virus may directly attack the gastrointestinal tract.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the battle with COVID-19 doesn’t always end when you test negative. While we know that not everyone who contracts COVID-19 later develops long haul COVID, we still don’t know how common it is—one study estimated that 10% of COVID-19 patients become post-COVID patients, but another found that most people still had at least one COVID symptom six months after catching it.
These are the key symptoms of long haul COVID:
Just like COVID-19, post-COVID can also cause digestive issues that aren’t talked about as often as other symptoms. Let’s break those down.
It’s actually common for viral infections like the coronavirus to wreak havoc on the digestive tract. In a condition called “post-infectious dysmotility”, your body fights off the actual infection, but continues to experience irregularity (ie. constipation, diarrhea, or both). These symptoms usually disappear within weeks or months.
Unfortunately, long haul COVID can cause more trouble than messing up your bathroom schedule (and that’s bad enough on its own). Post-COVID patients have also reported ongoing loss of appetite, nausea, bloating, heartburn, and other acid reflux symptoms. Researchers suspect this could be because receptor cells targeted by the coronavirus are found throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
On the bright side, post-COVID digestive symptoms seem to be responding to the same treatments that are normally prescribed for them. That means you can continue relying on your usual antacids, H2 blockers, or PPIs after you recover from COVID-19. Just be sure to reach out to a healthcare professional if you experience a sudden uptick in your GI symptoms, even if you aren’t seeing other signs of COVID.
We know that all this can be hard to hear when you’re worried about avoiding catching a dangerous virus and keeping your digestive symptoms under control. The upside is that as long as you’re taking the proper COVID safety precautions and sticking to your existing treatment regimen for your GI issues, you’re already doing the most you can to keep yourself healthy. Just be sure to talk to a doctor about any new or more severe post-COVID stomach issues you experience.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
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